Joseph Brodsky on Boredom

The Charity of St Nicholas of Bari, Carlo Portelli/ Girolo Macchietti
Wikimedia Commons (

The very notion of originality or innovation spells out of the monotony of standard reality, of life, whose main medium – nay, idiom – is tedium.

Joseph Brodsky – Grief and Reason

I remember reading somewhere a hypothesis that people stopped killing witches because it became boring. You kill one, or see one of the killings, and what is there to be seen next time?

Boredom is a fascinating topic. Dino, the main character of Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom, says that he intended to write a book about how everything that changes in history changes because people got bored with the previous state of affairs. Wars, killings, technological and economical changes – those were moved by the people who simply were bored.

When thinking about the topic of boredom, possibly the best essay that always comes to my mind is Joseph Brodsky’s In Praise of Boredom (from his book Grief and Reason). (Another good pick is twenty-something pages from Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or).

Brodsky’s essay really struck me with the title alone. How can you praise boredom? Personally, I have never felt negatively towards boredom. When feeling bored, for me it was always an opportunity to do something good: meditate or simply sleep. So how could meditating or sleeping possibly be bad things? So, praising boredom – sounds like a proper way to explore the topic.

Brodsky’s essay was actually a lecture he delivered to the graduates of Dartmouth College in 1989.

Boredom originates in repetition. And repetition is the essence of time. You couldn’t possibly escape boredom, because you can’t escape time. Of course there are ways in which we try to do that – spending time on illusions that make you feel you have spent your time on something that in the moment makes you feel good – chasing money or becoming addicted to heroin. The problem with various forms a man uses to escape boredom is that he can become bored with them too.

Basically, there is nothing wrong about turning life into the constant quest for alternatives, into leap-frogging jobs, spouses, surroundings, etc, provided you can afford the alimony and jumbled memories. This predicament, after all, has been sufficiently glamorized on screen and in Romantic poetry. The rub, however, is that before long this quest turns into a full-time occupation, with your need for an alternative coming to match a drug addict’s daily fix.

Joseph Brodsky – Grief and Reason

Brodsky goes straight to his core message: we should leave the boredom to crush us.

When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is, the sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here, to paraphrase another great poet of the English language, is to exact full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.

In a manner of speaking, boredom is your window on time, on those properties of it one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. In short, it is your window on time’s infinity, which is to say, on your insignificance in it. That’s what accounts, perhaps, for one’s dread of lonely, torpid evenings, for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck of dust swirl in a sunbeam, and somewhere a clock tick-tocks, the day is hot, and your willpower is at zero.

Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it is to teach you the most valuable lesson in your life – the one you didn’t get here, on these green lawns – the lesson of your utter insignificance. It is valuable to you, as well as to those you are to rub shoulders with. “You are finite”, time tells you in a voice of boredom, “and whatever you do is, from my point of view, futile.” As music to your ears, this, of course, may not count; yet the sense of futility, of limited significance even of your best, most ardent actions is better than the illusion of their consequences and the attendant self-aggrandizement.

For boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values. It puts your existence into its perspective, the net result of which is precision and humility. The former, it must be noted, breeds the latter. The more you learn about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become to your likes, to that dust aswirl in a sunbean or already immobile atop your table. Ah, how much life went into those fleck! Not from your point of view but from theirs. You are to them what time is to you; that’s why they look so small. And do you know what the dust says when it’s being wiped off the table?

Joseph Brodsky – Grief and Reason

Being aware that we are finite, should give us boundless energy. What we are bored from is not our finite existence, rather the infinity – which is not so lively.

This is what it means – to be insignificant. If it takes will-paralyzing boredom to bring this home, then hail the boredom. You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet the more finite a thing is, the more it is charged with life, emotions, joy, fears, compassion. For infinity is not terribly lively, not terribly emotional. Your boredom, at least, tells you that much. Because your boredom is the boredom of infinity.

Respect it, then, for its origins – as much perhaps as for your own. Because it is the anticipation of that inanimate infinity that accounts for the intensity of human sentiments, often resulting in a conception of a new life. This is not to say that you have been conceived out of boredom, or that the finite breeds the finite (though both may ring true). It is to suggest, rather, that passion is the privilege of the insignificant.

So try to stay passionate, leave your cool to constellations. Passion, above all, is a remedy against boredom. Another one, of course, is pain – physical more than psychological, passion’s frequent aftermath; although I wish you neither. Still, when you hurt you know that at least you haven’t been deceived (by your body or by your psyche). By the same token, what’s good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of the meaninglessness of your own, of everything else’s existence, is that it is not a deception.

Joseph Brodsky – Grief and Reason

Show Comments